on 31 March 2012
If you have any interest at all in the many interactions between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I approached it as a relatively uninformed layman with an interest in Islamic art, music of the middle ages and the romance languages, who had found himself more moved than he had expected by visits to Andalusia. I came away from it with a much greater understanding of the history of Al Andalus and the extraordinary ways in which the faiths had interacted during this crucial stage in the development of our world. I won't attempt to summarise it - simply to say that it is beautifully written, by a writer with the deepest insights into her subject, and that is has changed quite significantly how I view a whole range of issues of faith, culture, art, music and language. The only possible criticism, in my view, is a degree of repetition as she views the subject through the prism of different individuals: it's still worth sticking with it to the very last page.
I've long wanted to visit the Alhambra, one of the greatest remaining traces of the Islamic culture that once flourished in Spain. After reading this book, I want to visit all the more.
al-Andalus as it was named by Abd al-Rahman, last remaining heir of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, was a perhaps unique moment in time and space, a brief few centuries when Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed in relative peace. The Caliphate of Cordoba created a vivid, vibrant culture that lingered long after al-Andalus had fragmented into city-states, weakened by internal division between the more tolerant Islam of the Umayyads and the new fanaticism of Berbers from North Africa, and subsequently conquered bit by bit by the Catholic monarchs of Spain.
This is not history as I've ever read it before - if I had to pick any one word to describe this book, it would be an elegy, of sorts. What Menocal has written here is a love song, her own 'memory palace' devoted to memorialising a time and a place long since destroyed. It's an incredibly romantic, bittersweet read, and you can understand why the memories of al-Andalus have lingered for so long, why Arabs and Sephardic Jews still lament the loss of cities like Granada and Cordoba, why palaces like the Alhambra were built to serve as remembrances. al-Andalus itself was for Abd al-Rahman an evocation of his lost life in Damascus; the Alhambra was built to evoke Cordoba, and so on.
That said, I'm sure serious students of the era could pick apart a lot of this book, and a large amount of less romantic material must have been omitted or glossed over - no era in history could ever as been as idyllic as this! Whilst tolerance flourished to a degree, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus under the Caliphate of Cordoba were still very much second-class citizens; the word of a Muslim outweighed that of a Christian or Jew, and justice was very uneven. al-Andalus may have been an incredibly tolerant and culturally diverse society for its time, but it was no earthly paradise, I'm sure.
Writing history raises an inevitable challenge: relate events as they were or portray selected elements to emphasize a theme. The former method is often ponderous, the latter often misleading. Menocal has opted for the second option. In her survey of Medieval Spain, she gives us an entertaining and informative look at expressions of the intellectual elite over seven centuries of Muslim rule.
Menocal's approach aims to restore Spanish Islam's blemished reputation. Muslim Spain has endured a scathing censure imposed by "victorious" Christian Europe. In the Christian view, the Reconquista of Spain freed a population from a Muslim yoke. The European invasion of the Western Hemisphere carried that myth across the Atlantic while strengthening the crusading attitude of the conquistadores. Menocal uses romantic poetry, the advancement of selected scholars to high posts under the caliphate, and the literacy of the Muslim and Jewish communities as evidence of high, positive interaction. Even the Christians, normally disdainful of literacy, science and philosophy, joined the chorus of common interests.
Weaving her tale around the Cordovan Umayyad caliphs founded by exiled prince Abn al-Rahmad, she traces the building programs, internal disputes among the Islamic schisms arising along the Mediterranean, and the challenges posed by intruders from the north. For Menocal, the binding force across Islamic Spain was language. Arabic became a lingua franca with the power to transcend religious dogma and jurisdictional disputes. Jews and Christians alike became fluent in this imposed language due to its expressive power. Arabic was also used in the Eastern Mediterranean to recover and spread lost texts of the Greek scholars. Thus, often unattributed, the Muslims kept medicine, astronomy, philosophy and other disciplines alive. Christians would later adapt them joyfully, but the Dark Ages aren't misnamed for the rest of Western Europe.
Menocal might have produced a book of sweeping vision, restoring the image of Muslim Spain as one of civilisation's most noteworthy achievements. Instead, she sinks into a swamp of romantic fervour, highlighting erotic poetry and grandiose architecture. The farmers and small traders who were taxed to support these elitist endeavours likely had a different view. That is, when they weren't in hiding from the nearly continuous wars waged among the Muslims or between the Islamic invaders from the south or the Christian ones from across the Pyrenees.
As she skips over the centuries, Menocal introduces the rising tide of Christian aggressive attitudes culminating in the Jewish/Muslim expulsion. The French monastics at Cluny had adopted the liberal view of philosophy espoused by their Iberian neighbours. Deeper in Europe, however, the Cistercians, ardent crusaders, urged expunging Christianity of any Arabic taint. Viewpoints hardened, as Menocal recounts, through exchanges of essays and books. Menocal doesn't investigate whether these expressions reached the general populace, but the Church hierarchy system ensured local parish priests acted as mouthpieces of the regional bishops. The events of 1492 verified who had the louder voice.
Although tentatively concluding with the background of Columbus' departure, Menocal cannot resist extending her recital to the early 17th Century. How can one write on Spain without folding the La Manchan epic into the story? Finding Arabic roots in Cervantes is neither new nor difficult, but Menocal provides a new twist. Menocal suggests Don Quixote's worldview is that of any thinker of the Muslim period. Identity of any aspect of the world is muddled by a spread of conflicting, if not hostile, attitudes. La Mancha thus becomes the last gasp of an integrated Spanish society that is considered insane by the rigid-minded world that succeeded it.
Given the span of time and involvement of numerous articulate historical figures, one turns to the "Other Readings" at the back with high expectation. Turn the pages carefully, otherwise you'll miss it. Instead of a bibliography rich in selection, there are a few translations by Menocal's lady friends and a few, little known scholars of the subject. If Menocal lacked the ambition, time or knowledge to produce a proper reading list, she might have cited one or two good ones. Instead, there's a paucity of further reading. Except for the few maps, which mostly duplicate each other, the illustrations follow the pattern. A pity. Such an immense topic standing on so feeble a base makes this book good reading, but uninformative. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 12 March 2004
I'm not a scholar of this period of history, i just love Andalusia - so for me this book was a really informative introduction to the history of this region, written in a way that is easy enjoy as a non-academic.
I loved the characters - she really brings them to life, and the history of some of the great buildings (like the mosque of Cordoba & the Alhambra) was fascinating. Also the way in which this area of Spain was so influential in the re-discovery of ancient philosophy, maths, astronomy & more was a revelation to me.
I read this book whilst in Granada and it really brought the history of the place to life.
on 23 August 2014
I got this first on kindle and then could not put the 'book' down, and now have a pb. On one side it is full of history - presented not as a conventional history, but a series of snippets which form a picture of nearly 500 years of the history of Analucia. The Muslim influence in Spain is as profound as the Roman occupation on English. Apart from the example which gives the book its title, for living and working in harmony, it also acknowledges the debt Europe has to pre-12thc. Spain, and Andalucia in particular.What comes through is the 'feel' of a place, once ruled by an intelligent and open hearted Muslim dynasty - too open for some as later events showed. People do not learn from history: to invite a more aggressively militant group in to support the fight against an aggressive neighbour always carries the potential risk that the 'aid' may take over. The book ends with the reminder that conflicts involving those who lived once together, has not ended. A lovely serious in intent, but very accessible look at something that was much more than just a historical event.
on 28 May 2013
A library of 500,00 books. The Mezquita which is an amazing work of art. The background and structure for building Gothic Cathedrals. What the Moors knew in the 9th though the 15h century was way ahead of Christians. The sewage system and clean streets what more could a person want in the 10th & 11th centuries? Pretty hard to beat this glorious history!
on 16 January 2008
If you're looking for a history of culture and civilisation in Spain 711-1492, the period when Spain was partly or mostly under Islamic rule, this isn't it. Still less does it give an overall political framework. It's not meant to.
Professor Menocal has set herself the task of enlightening us about the cultural diversity, and artistic, architectural and intellectual excellence of the era, based as it was on a remarkable level of religious tolerance. Her regret at the loss of this religious toleration is the underlying point of the book. She writes as if expecting this picture of Islamic Spain to come as a revelation to her readers, which surely underestimates the historical awareness of the sort of person who is likely to pick up the book or click on it on this website.
She takes an episodic approach, analysing selected but mostly unlinked people and incidents which provide evidence either for her evocation of the period, or for her explanation of its decline in the face of rising religious intolerance. I was surprised that she did not make more of the effect of the Crusades in the latter context - stirring up religious militancy on all sides.
There's no doubt that she effectively expresses her passion for her theme, and her examples do initially make the point about this era in Spanish history. The problem is that the approach produces a degree of incoherence which makes the book increasingly woolly as it goes on and creates a need for her to keep repeating the basic message in order to remind us of it.
It's a nice idea - to get away from the traditional narrative of the history of the country and the standard recitation of the culture, but it ends up being rather unsatisfying. Because of the episodic nature and lack of background information, the general reader will struggle to set many of the people and incidents referred to into a known context. The expert in the period (which I'm not - just a retired history teacher) may find it all a bit shallow and obvious.
on 21 April 2015
This is surprisingly relevant to today. It describes how the three religions coexisted in medieval Andalucía. What's more it describes a period under the Umayyad caliphate when science, art and engineering flourished under Islam. The lessons are still there to be seen and heard if you visit the exhibition about the three religions in the Torre de Calahorra in Córdoba. Sadly the book also chronicles how some of the achievements were lost as a result of the Berber wars. Perhaps nothing lasts for ever.
on 30 July 2013
If only more people realised the importance of the Golden Age between 700AD and the fourteenth century. I thank Maria Rosa Menocal for her explicit research. Anyone who seeks an answer to the 'blindness' of our age in relation to our Abrahamic Faiths should read and study the contents of this excellent book. I have already given several copies to my friends and will continue to do so!
on 21 November 2012
Great book. Full of unexpected information. The downfall of the Moors in Spain was not entirely the work of the Catholic monarchs but from within and without by other Moorish groups, principally Al Mansur bringing the Berbers in - I didn't know that! Not as heavy going as I expected, have now to catch up on other parts of Spanish history.